Christopher Dawson’s Six Ages of the Church exhibit a cyclical pattern in historical events. Each Age exhibits an overall pattern of “rise and fall” during each cycle of spiritual renewal. Each new Age peaks and then encounters a new onslaught of adversities. It is possible to imagine the entire sweep of this non-linear history in a graphical form, with the “peaks and valleys” portrayed accordingly.[1]

Another way to think about the cyclical patterns in Church history, as identified by Dawson, is to think in terms of Remi Brague’s thesis about “constituent divisions.” Brague has identified four “constituent divisions” that correspond to the same divisions found between Dawson’s Second and Third, Third and Fourth, Fourth and Fifth, and Fifth and Sixth Ages.

Each one of these four division points between Eras marks one of the most significant “wounds” inflicted during the formation of Europe. The First and Second Ages (i.e., the Apostolic and Patristic eras) are marked off by the Barbarian East against the Greco-Roman West.[2] This period ends with the famous invasion of Rome by the barbarians. The first constituent division, then, marks the fall of Rome: the first “wound” of Europe is inflicted by the barbarian invasions.

Next, the Third Age is marked by Christian North against Muslim South; the Fourth Age by Latin West against Greek East; and the Fifth Age by Catholic South against North European Reformers.[3] As for the Sixth Age, perhaps it might best be seen by us as the Church with the whole world, the entire Secular Age, standing against it.

In the Third Age, we can see spiritual renewal characterized by the mission to the North, to convert the barbarians who had invaded Rome in the Second Age. St. Boniface’s work was evangelizing Germany (723-739) and helping the papacy form an alliance with the Frankish kings. At the peak of the Third Age, we can see Charlemagne—king in 768, son of King Pepin[4]—crowned on Christmas Day, 800.

Yet Charlemagne is significant above all not for his failed political project, the Holy Roman Empire, but for his education reform, which did succeed. We may think here of his invitation to John the Scot of Ireland. The theological highlight of the Third Age is arguably the work of this John Scotus Eriugena (c.810-877), “John the Scot, born in Ireland,” famous for his Latin translation of Dionysius the Areopagite, and his De divisione naturae (Periphyseon), and allegedly a martyr for philosophy.[5] Charlemagne was thus incalculably influential in the formation of Christendom.

But we should note also the filioque fiasco.[6] The main historical lesson of the Second and Third Ages, in other words, seems to be that a Christian Emperor, whatever his virtues, does enormous damage when getting involved in theological controversies. Likewise, the Fourth and Fifth Ages teach that the Pope should not be too political. Furthermore, it seems the Sixth (or Secular) Age is now all about defining the papacy in relation to democracy and religious freedom (as Emile Perreau-Saussine teaches us in Catholicism and Democracy).

In the Second Age (the great Patristic era), the cultural success of Christianity is named by the word “Hellenization.” In the First era, the decisive Pauline mission to the Gentiles was crowned by the “Romanization” of Christianity in the Second Age. Not just a cultural success, it became also a political success that opened the path to a unified Christian culture in Europe. But the window of opportunity here was very brief. Dawson writes:[7]

Thus, unlike Christian Byzantium, Christian Rome represents only a brief interlude between paganism and barbarism. There were only eighteen years between Theodosius’ closing of the temples and the first sack of the Eternal City by the barbarians. The great age of the Western Fathers from Ambrose to Augustine was crammed into a single generation, and St. Augustine died with the Vandals at the gate.

In addition to Ambrose and Augustine, Jerome and Pope Gregory are the other two Great Doctors of the Western Church (named thus in 1298). Pope St. Pius V named the Eastern four much later (in 1568): John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius.

After the widespread conversions made possible by the new era, in the Second Age, of Constantine’s religious freedom for Christians, a slow reversal begins under the cumulative assault of heresies and of course the barbarian invasions. The invasions were countered by the missionary outreach of the order of St. Benedict, founded 529, and by St. Patrick in Ireland. Regarding the assault of heresies, the Arians in the fourth century were combated by St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa),[8] and then the Pelagians and Monophysites were combated in the fifth century.[9]

Various saints were thus involved with epic turnarounds and new eras of renewal. Note St. Athanasius at the turnaround from the low point at the beginning of the Second Age. The turnaround at the end of the Second Age is marked by Pope St. Gregory I, sending St. Augustine of Canterbury to convert England. As for the turnaround at the end of the Third Age, Pope St. Gregory VII was the first Pope to stand up to and excommunicate a king (Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV). As for epic events of the Fourth Age, Pope St. Pius V implemented the reforms (Catechism, Breviary, Missal) of Trent (1545-1563) and, by naval alliance with Venice and Spain, achieved victory at Lepanto on October 7, 1571, thanks to Our Lady of Victory. Regarding the Fifth Age, consider the clash of Pope Pius VII against Napoleon.

Brague’s analysis of all these cycles complements Dawson’s. Brague speaks to the secularized mind of the contemporary intellectual, in order to help make visible the cyclical sweep of multiple renaissances in the multiple ages of European history. The animating principle of rebirth, charted in Dawson’s Six Ages, is the principle of “Latinity” (i.e., Brague’s Roman “secondarity”) that has come to define the dynamism of Western civilization throughout those Ages. It is the very principle against which the decline of any Age can be measured and judged.

Dawson’s Six Ages of the Church, together with Brague’s identification of the Roman principle of “secondarity,” shows us how the variability of the threats to Christendom has always been met with the flexibility of adaptive and creative secondarity. Thus has been generated the multiple, successive renaissances of Europe throughout the Ages.

Brague’s thesis about “secondarity” can been seen as an answer to what Dermot Quinn has called the “self-refuting scientism” of critics like Hayden White.[10] White’s objection is that Dawson is both not scientific enough (because he speaks of un-revisable spiritual realities) and too scientific (because overly schematic).

In reply to the first part of this objection, we may observe that the historian studies only the empirical manifestation of spiritual movements, i.e., the impact of religion and its causal formation of culture.

Further, the second part of White’s objection cannot be sustained once we understand the schematism of Dawson’s Six Ages as not doing violence to the empirical phenomena. It is not a scientific hypothesis that is somehow too crude to do justice to the historical realities. On the contrary, Rémi Brague shows how the proposition of “secondarity” alone can account for the astonishing variability in the fortunes of the West and its defining religious culture. It is thus the ultimate source of the West’s many cycles of ascent, decline, and rebirth.

Christopher Dawson is thereby vindicated, along with his truly catholic vantage on history. That vantage renders European history intelligible, but not by a crudely imposed schematism. Rather, the dynamic variability of European history is only done justice by those who are able to look beyond the reigning current of scientism and seek a true science of history.

Whether they are believers or not, all historians have no option, as Brague insists, but to take Europe’s “Romanity” seriously. And this means they must acknowledge the manifest historical reality of the Six Ages as outlined by Dawson.

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[1] Cf. Alan Schreck, The Compact History of the Catholic Church (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1987), 145.

[2] Cf. Christopher Dawson, “Europe and the Seven Stages of Western Culture”, in Christianity and European Culture (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 132-151, esp. 134-139. In this essay from Understanding Europe (1952), the First Stage runs from Homer to Alexander, and the Second Stage runs from Alexander to Constantine, thus overlapping with the Church’s First Age; the Third Stage pushes the Third Age back into the Patristic Era, the Second Age: i.e., in Dawson’s earlier schematism, the Third Stage is equivalent to Ages Two plus Three.

[3] Remi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), 7-16.

[4] King Pippin is named “Patrician of the Romans” when Pope Stephen II re-consecrated him as king in 754; cf. Schreck, Compact History, 35. The alliance was made to secure Frankish help against the Italian Lombards.

[5] Cf. John Deely, Four Ages of Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 135-140.

[6] Cf. Schreck, Compact History, 36-37, and Deely, Four Ages, 180-181, 202-205. Cf. Deely, Four Ages, 181 on the homoousion (176-180) and filioque controversies.

[7] Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 30.

[8] Cf. Council of Constantinople (318) and Nicea (325).

[9] Cf. Council of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) and Pope St. Leo I the Great (r.440-461).

[10] Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (ISI, 2002), xxviii; cf. x-xi.

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